The morning before my birding class’s field trip, I went to the site to check it out. Unexpectedly, I had one of the best birding experiences of the year.
When I got to North Lido Beach on Lido Key in Florida, the usual suspects, laughing gulls and ring-billed gulls were there. As I walked, the avian traffic was light but my eyes were on a spot where the sand curved sharply out to sea and a multitude of birds usually gathered. T
hen it started. There’s a strange gull, smaller and slimmer than any gull here. It physically resembles a tern. The head is white with a tennis ball shape and there’s a black spot behind the eye, a remnant of its summer plumage. Click. This is a Bonaparte’s gull, quite uncommon here.
Does the gull’s name sound familiar? Those of a certain age may remember the name Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France from 1804 to 1814. The KO he suffered at the Battle of Waterloo is synonymous with downfall. However, for birders, the name lives on through a nephew Charles Lucien Bonaparte, who was an ornithologist and had this gull named for him.
This one is paddling in the water close to shore in small waves. It seems so buoyant. I’ve seen Bonaparte’s only a few times and they were on shore. It is quickly joined by a second Bonaparte’s, bobbing and paddling. I’m delighted as I’ve never seen these gulls swim. Twenty minutes later I’ve got two more sightings further down the beach. These two are also very buoyant and stay in the small waves close to shore. I think my day is made but it’s really just starting.
Looking at them closely, I get an eyeful: there’s a black wedge on the tail, their wing edges have black and the wings seem to have a pattern as well. I’m intrigued by their wing pattern which is grayish but has black edges. One is flying in toward me and those black wing edges have breaks of white. Elegant. I’m starting to get taken by this white bird. Soon there are four more spread out but reasonably close together. I now know there are at least four Bonaparte’s. Some are flying but mostly south in which a stiff breeze is blowing.
Again in 20 more minutes my total number of sightings have risen to 14. One lands on the beach and begins to walk, flies a little and then does an arc out to sea.
The Bonaparte’s is the smallest gull usually seen in North America. In winter they eat small fish, aquatic insects, snails and other invertebrates. They sometimes skim the water, probably for aquatic insects, but don’t dive as do terns. I don’t know if they are presently feeding or just paddling. They also don’t mix with larger gulls onshore, which is a useful tip for spotting them. One however is swimming near two other gulls perhaps trying to mingle. For it’s efforts, the Bonaparte’s is twice attacked. So much for socializing.
Through my binoculars the white neck and suede gray back are so smooth. Looking at the patch of black behind the eye which resembles a tennis ball I notice that there is a partial white eye ring above the eye, However the head is white making this a mystery for another time. When I get done walking the entire beach, I’ve sighted 32 Bonaparte’s.
When I get home I email a birder who was in charge of the Christmas Bird Count of the area. A little while later he posts one saying that he was there about an hour before me and counted 16 first year Bonaparte’s and adds my count. This is interesting news for the birding community. Looking at my pics I see for the first time the light brown band across their backs identifying them as first year birds.
I hope that my class will see even one of the Bonaparte’s the next day. I readied a field guide ready to show them and told them what to look for before we started. Want to know what happened? Nothing. The number of Bonaparte’s we saw was zippola. That’s what happened.
However some fishermen were out and two great blue herons had staked them out, each near the one of their choosing. The eternal hope of getting a throwaway fish resides in their hearts, but the pickings are at best, slim. Great blues are a sight. As many hundreds of times as I’ve seen great blue herons, once in a while I come upon one that surprises me. They are 46-inches which, face to face, translates into the size of a child.
They can stand statue-like still and being primarily gray, they tend to blend in with sand and trees. Up close they have rust, white, a javelin-like bill and can startle even veteran observers. A newcomer flies fast low to the ground toward the two that have staked out their territories which are imperative for birds and they defend them. Two face off, wings up and jumping. Mine. No my territory, get lost! A chase ensues over water. This repeats itself a few times with all three and it’s difficult to tell who is chasing who. A woman suggests that this may be an attempted mating.
Bill, who has a significant knowledge of birds says, “food before sex.” This raw birds-in-the-wild behavior hasn’t been seen before by my group.
A few days later I meet Miriam, a Scotswoman who is an astute avian observer. She tells me that yesterday there were two Bonaparte’s gulls on the beach. My class has a trip here in a few days. I know better than to get my hopes up.
Improbably during the class trip, I see her again. Not today, she says. No problem, there’s so many other gulls and terns here that a Bonaparte’s might be overload.